John Bowlby (1969) believed that attachment was an all or nothing process. However, research has shown that there are individual differences in attachment quality.
Indeed one of the primary paradigms in attachment theory is that of the security of an individual’s attachment (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).
Much research in psychology has focused on how forms of attachment differ between infants. For example, Schaffer and Emerson (1964) discovered what appeared to be innate differences in sociability in babies; some babies preferred cuddling more than others, from very early on, before much interaction had occurred to cause such differences.
However, it was probably the psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1913 - 1999) who provided the most famous body of research offering explanations of individual differences in attachment.
It’s easy enough to know when you are attached to someone because you know how you feel when you are apart from that person, and, being an adult, you can put your feelings into words and describe how it feels.
However, most attachment research is carried out using infants and young children, so psychologists have to devise subtle ways of researching attachment styles, usually involving the observational method.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth devised an assessment technique called the Strange Situation Classification (SSC) in order to investigate how attachments might vary between children.
The Strange Situation was devised by Ainsworth & Wittig (1969) and was based on Ainsworth’s previous Uganda (1967) and later Baltimore studies (Ainsworth et al., 1971, 1978).
Mary Ainsworth's (1971, 1978) observational study of individual differences in attachment is described below.
Strange Situation Procedure
The security of attachment in one- to two-year-olds was investigated using the 'strange situation' procedure, in order to determine the nature of attachment behaviors and styles of attachment.
Ainsworth developed an experimental procedure in order to observe the variety of attachment forms exhibited between mothers and infants.
The experiment is set up in a small room with one way glass so the behavior of the infant can be observed covertly. Infants were aged between 12 and 18 months. The sample comprised about 100 middle class American families.
The procedure, known as the ‘Strange Situation’, was conducted by observing the behavior of the infant in a series of eight episodes lasting approximately 3 minutes each:
(1) Mother, baby and experimenter (lasts less than one minute).
(2) Mother and baby alone.
(3) Stranger joins mother and infant.
(4) Mother leaves baby and stranger alone.
(5) Mother returns and stranger leaves.
(6) Mother leaves; infant left completely alone.
(7) Stranger returns.
(8) Mother returns and stranger leaves.
(click on the image below):
Strange Situation classifications (i.e. attachment styles) are based primarily on 4 interaction behaviors directed toward the mother in the two
reunion episodes (Ep. 5 & Ep. 8).
Proximity and contacting seeking
Avoidance of proximity and contact
Resistance to contact and comforting
The observer notes down the behavior displayed during 15 second intervals and scores the behavior for intensity on a scale of 1 to 7.
Other behaviors observed included:
e.g. moving around room, playing with toys, looking around room.
e.g. following mother to door, banging on door, orienting to the door, looking at door, going to mother’s empty chair, looking at mother’s empty chair.
Affect Displays negative, e.g. crying, smiling.
Results - Attachment Styles
Ainsworth (1970) identified three main attachment styles, secure (type B), insecure avoidant (type A) and insecure ambivalent/resistent (type C). She concluded that these attachment styles were the result of early interactions with the mother. A forth attachment style known as disorganized was later identified (Main, & Solomon, 1990).
Distressed when mother leaves.
Infant shows signs of intense distress when mother leaves.
Infant shows no sign of distress when mother leaves.
Avoidant of stranger when alone but friendly when mother present.
Infant avoids the stranger - shows fear of stranger.
Infant is okay with the stranger and plays normally when stranger is present.
Positive and happy when mother returns.
Child approaches mother but resists contact, may even push her away.
Infant shows little interest when mother returns.
Will use the mother as a safe base to explore their environment.
Infant cries more and explores less than the other 2 types.
Mother and stranger are able to comfort the infant equally well.
% of infants
B: Secure Attachment
Securely attached children comprised the majority of the sample in Ainsworth’s (1971, 1978) studies.
Such children feel confident that the attachment figure will be available to meet their needs. They use the attachment figure as a safe base to explore the environment and seek the attachment figure in times of distress (Main, & Cassidy, 1988).
Securely attached infants are easily soothed by the attachment figure when upset. Infants develop a secure attachment when the caregiver is sensitive to their signals, and responds appropriately to their needs.
According to Bowlby (1980) an individual who has experienced a secure attachment 'is likely to possess a representational model of attachment figures(s) as being available, responsive, and helpful' (Bowlby, 1980, p. 242).
A: Insecure Avoidant
Insecure avoidant children do not orientate to their attachment figure while investigating the environment.
They are very independent of the attachment figure both physically and emotionally (Behrens, Hesse, & Main, 2007).
They do not seek contract with the attachment figure when distressed. Such children are likely to have a caregiver who is insensitive and rejecting of their needs (Ainsworth, 1979). The attachment figure may withdraw from helping during difficult tasks (Stevenson-Hinde, & Verschueren, 2002) and is often unavailable during times of emotional distress.
C: Insecure Ambivalent / Resistant
The third attachment style identified by Ainsworth (1970) was insecure ambivalent (also called insecure resistant).
Here children adopt an ambivalent behavioral style towards the attachment figure. The child will commonly exhibit clingy and dependent behavior, but will be rejecting of the attachment figure when they engage in interaction.
The child fails to develop any feelings of security from the attachment figure. Accordingly they exhibit difficulty moving away from the attachment figure to explore novel surroundings. When distressed they are difficult to soothe and are not comforted by interaction with the attachment figure. This behavior results from an inconsistent level of response to their needs from the primary caregiver.
Strange Situation Conclusion
Ainsworth (1978) suggested that behavior in the strange situation classification was determined by the behavior of the primary carer (in this case the mother).
For example, securely attached infant are associated with sensitive & responsive primary care.
Insecure ambivalent attached infants are associated with inconsistent primary care. Sometimes the child’s needs and met and sometime they are ignored by the mother / father.
Insecure avoidant infants are associated with unresponsive primary care. The child comes to believe that communication of needs has no influence on the mother / father.
For example, securely attached children develop a positive working model of themselves and have mental representations of others as being helpful while viewing themselves as worthy of respect (Jacobsen, & Hoffman, 1997).
Avoidant children think themselves unworthy and unacceptable, caused by a rejecting primary caregiver (Larose, & Bernier, 2001).
Ambivalent children have negative self image and exaggerate their emotional responses as a way to gain attention (Kobak et al., 1993). Accordingly, insecure attachment styles are associated with an increased risk of social and emotional behavioral problems via the internal working model.
Evaluation of The Strange Situation
The strange situation classification has been found to have good reliability. This means that it achieves consistent results. For example, a study conducted in Germany found 78% of the children were classified in the same way at ages 1 and 6 years (Wartner et al. 1994).
Although, as Melhuish (1993) suggests, the Strange Situation is the most widely used method for assessing infant attachment to a caregiver, Lamb et al. (1985) have criticized it for being highly artificial and therefore lacking ecological validity. The child is placed in a strange and artificial environment, and the procedure of the mother and stranger entering and leaving the room follows a predetermined script.
Mary Ainsworth's conclusion that the strange situation can be used to identify the child's type of attachment has been criticized on the grounds that it identifies only the type of attachment to the mother. The child may have a different type of attachment to the father or grandmother, for example (Lamb, 1977). This means that it lacks validity, as it is not measuring a general attachment style, but instead an attachment style specific to the mother.
In addition, some research has shown that the same child may show different attachment behaviors on different occasions. Children's attachments may change, perhaps because of changes in the child's circumstances, so a securely attached child may appear insecurely attached if the mother becomes ill or the family circumstances change.
The strange situation has also been criticized on ethical grounds. Because the child is put under stress (separation and stranger anxiety), the study has broken the ethical guideline protection of participants.
However, in its defence the separation episodes were curtailed prematurely if the child became too stressed. Also, according to Marrone (1998), although the Strange Situation has been criticized for being stressful, it is simulating everyday experiences, as mothers do leave their babies for brief periods of time in different settings and often with unfamiliar people such as baby sitters.
Finally, the studies sample is biased - comprising 100 middle class American families. Therefore, it is difficult to generalize the findings outside of America and to working class families.
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How to cite this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2014). Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html